The Big Apple's Best Multi-Culti Event: Drums Along the Hudson

The Big Apple's Best Multi-Culti Event: Drums Along the Hudson


On Sunday, May 20th, the 10th annual Drums Along the Hudson will once again turn Upper Manhattan’s Inwood Hill Park into a festival of music and dancing. In one of the most diverse cities on the planet, Drums Along the Hudson is a celebration of New York’s spirit of cultural sharing—what began as a pow wow has blossomed into a multi-culti event, centered on American Indian drums and dancers who rub shoulders, and keep beats, with musicians from cultures all over the world.

Founded in 2002 by Kamala Cesar, Mohawk and Latino, the artistic director of Lotus Music & Dance based in Manhattan, and Carl Nelson, Drums Along the Hudson began as a traditional pow wow celebrating the Lenape.  Both Lotus Music & Dance and Drums Along the Hudson were born, in part, from a revelation Cesar experienced while in high school—she found out her mother was Mohawk.

“My mother was a victim of the boarding schools, it was called the Spanish Boarding school up in Canada.  She wasn’t allowed to speak Mohawk, she wasn’t allowed to take part in her culture.”  This newly discovered knowledge sparked Cesar’s curiosity, and she found herself studying abroad in India while in college.

“In college, I studied Bharata Natyam (which means, roughly, “Indian dancing”) in south India. It changed my life. I realized how important my own culture was.”

Cesar moved to New York in the late 80s and soon found herself learning how to speak Mohawk, and eventually, through the tutelage of many new friends and advisors,  began helping educate people about the Haudenosaunee culture.

“We wanted to let people know the Haudenosaunee were still alive, were still living their culture.”

In 1989, Cesar created the not-for-profit Lotus Music & Dance studio, a “performance space, sanctuary, and center of education for traditional and indigenous performing art forms,” as their website states.

“When we opened the doors, we had Indian, Tahitian, American Indian traditional dancing styles…there was no other place where all these traditional styles were happening. A lot of these people, from all over the world, end up in New York, and they want to continue their culture.”

Dave Ruder, the program manager of Lotus Music & Dance, said Cesar created a “haven” where “music and dance from all over the globe are nurtured.”

The idea behind the original Drums Along the Hudson in 2002 was to create a public event that celebrated the incredibly rich, and still vibrant, American Indian culture in New York. Cesar and her team wanted to commemorate the Lenape who had first inhabited Inwood Hill Park (known as Shorakapok, “edge of the water”), and the event attracted around 400 people.

“Starting in 2004, Drums Along the Hudson has grown and incorporated musicians from around the world, all of it centered around the drum.  We now get anywhere from five thousand to eight thousand people attending,” Ruder said. “What we’re doing is fostering connections between disparate world cultures by having them perform together.”

In past years, sharing the park with American Indian drummers and dancers, Drums Along the Hudson has hosted the Carioca Capoeira Arts (2008, Brazilian drummers and dancers), Bollywood dancers and drummers from India (2009), Shumei Taiko drummers (2010, Japanese), and the Snow Lion Tibetan Music & Dance Troupe (2011).  They are still organizing this year’s dancers and drummers.

What they have already settled upon for 2012 is to continue focusing on an issue they began addressing in 2009, which is placing environmental issues at the forefront of the event.  Participating organizations have included the Audubon Society, Clean Air NY, and the Lower East Side Ecology Center. Tents have been set up where attendees can learn how to live greener lives.

“It’s important for people to understand how severe and critical our environmental situation is,” Cesar said.  This year, Stephen Ritz, an educator who has created an ‘edible wall’ at the Renaissance Charter High School for Innovation in Harlem, will be on hand.  He has turned his classroom into a farm, and the roof of the school produces enough fruit and vegetables to feed 450 people.

When we asked Cesar if she could sum up what Drums Along the Hudson means to her, someone who got a late start in life embracing a culture she wasn’t aware she was a part of, she told us there was another person whose words should couldn’t improve upon; Xerona Clayton, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s event coordinator and a 2007 Drums Along the Hudson honoree.

“When Xerona looked out at the diverse audience gathered there while she was accepting her award for Contributions to Humanitarian Civil Rights and Environmental Stewardship, she smiled and said, ‘This is what Dr. King would have wanted to see.’”

Lotus Music & Dance:

Stephen Ritz:

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